When Kai O'Neal entered the first week of Girls on the Run as a fourth grader, she admits she was scared because she didn't know what to expect. That quickly changed as she found the lessons to be comfortable due to the safe environment the program provides. Her approach to building relationships changed, too.
"There were some girls I didn't talk to before but after Girls on the Run, I just ended up being friends with them and still talk to them to this day." Meaning, Kai has kept in touch with her GOTR friends despite the fact that they do not attend the same school.
"We grew tighter because of the topics we talked about. It was our safe space."
Now 14 and in the 9th grade, Kai can reflect back on her GOTR years; her first impression of the program? Fun!
"I knew a lot of the girls already, so getting to be with them without other kids, like boys, and it just being girls was better for me."
Kai's mother, Carmaleta, has always tried to reiterate positivity in her daughter's life. Being a single mom, she realized sometimes those moments may not connect versus Kai being able to talk to other girls her age and girls Kai's mother can trust.
"To hear her actually say she was able to build these unique relationships with these young girls and it was a safe space for them makes me feel good, makes me understand the true value of the program."
Kai heard about Girls on the Run through word of mouth (aka friends!) and registered for the program during her 4th and 5th grade years through the Boys and Girls Club South Bend O.C. Carmichael location. Her best experiences with the program were the conversations, when girls huddled up for little talks and there was a topic of the day.
"With me being an only child, I didn't really have like people to talk to so they're like my sisters and like being able to talk to them and connect with them was really good for me."
The Girls on the Run Impact
Today, Kai can say with confidence that Girls on the Run has changed the way she feels about herself and others. Kai could see a difference behavior-wise between girls that participated in the program and those that had not.
"It taught me about positivity and how to love myself, and others, especially others more than myself."
For Carmaleta, she realized her daughter was growing up. The day of Kai's first GOTR 5K Celebration, the girls were getting ready to start the race and Kai was in the middle. Carmaleta had also made her way to the middle to get pictures and video, but recalls Kai telling her to move because the 5K was about to start.
"She was like, 'Mom, it's getting ready to start. You gotta move. Mom, seriously they're gonna run over you! You gotta move, you gotta move!'"
In which case, Carmaleta jokingly said she almost did get run over and had to run with the crowd before moving off to the sidelines.
"That was like a little moment where I was like, 'Wow, she's wanting to do this on her own and she's taking this journey on her own.'"
Carmaleta could see Kai was growing up and OK with being on her own. It was a real eye opener.
Fast forward six years and Carmaleta was approached GOTR Board Member Tania Beng to be a part of Girls on the Run Michiana's IDEA core group but she hesitated because she had very little time on her hands being a single mom and already heavily involved with her church and volunteering elsewhere.
“When I was asked to be on the IDEA committee for Girls on the Run, I knew I had to make time for it because this program invested in my child and I knew the value of it.
"So I considered it an honor to volunteer knowing that so many other young girls lives would be touched just like my Kai. It made a lasting impact on her life."
Kai has since volunteered alongside her mom at various GOTR events. She wants to work with kids some day, maybe as a pediatrician, and feels like it would be good to be a coach. What would she say to them?
"They're capable of doing anything because that's what my coaches instilled in me. To just keep pushing, keep going and don't let anybody drag you down. Have that confidence in yourself."
Kai and her mom, Carmaleta, having fun in front of the camera after the GOTR 5K Celebration.
Kai, present day.